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Beachwood Sparks

The members of the California indie-psych band Beachwood Sparks must get sick of being compared to the Byrds, but Make the Cowboy Robots Cry will once again remind astute listeners of nothing less than Roger McGuinn and company during their most aerodynamically challenging period. There just aren't too many bands that sound like this, and when one hears an opus like the seven-minute opening cut, "Drinkwater," it can't help but recall the hazy, druggy (but ultimately benign) texture of such Byrds albums as Younger than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Not that Beachwood Sparks is an outright mimic: Singer Chris Gunst is an equal-opportunity borrower, affecting McGuinn's wafting falsetto as readily as the vulnerability of maestros like Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren in a song like "Ponce de Leon Blues," while the band responds with trippy ambiance. But the strangely mechanical-yet-still-organic pinwheels of sound that make up tracks like these ultimately conjure a feeling similar to that of the famous folk-rock architects.

The Byrds, however, were a multi-faceted group with many changing phases of organic development throughout their brief existence, from folk-rock to the complicated studio constructions of the whole Younger/Notorious era to the sparkling country-rock of the Gram Parsons/Clarence White years. That is the crux of the problem: With such an extensive pre-existing palette to dip into, bands can go on infinitely treading on the timeless visions of their predecessors. The Velvet Underground was the first band to be pillaged to this extent, and it's interesting to note that, while earlier alt-rock bands like R.E.M. and Velvet Crush tended to concentrate more on the folkiness angle of the Byrds, Beachwood Sparks seems to be fascinated by the druggy haze of later Byrds (even the drum sound in "Drinkwater" is a complete re-adaptation of McGuinn's sonic concept on Notorious). But whereas the Byrds were profound, the Beachwoods are merely flighty and sometimes outright dippy (one lyric goes "Like spinach and Muhammad Ali/A cloud in a whirlwind out of the West"). And where the Byrds were lush, Beachwood Sparks is sometimes merely lackadaisical. Despite the derivativeness, the vocal harmonies are as fresh as they come, echoing the Beach Boys in their chorale finesse ("Ghost Dance 1492" sounds like an outtake from when the Boys were palling around with Charles Manson).

Although Beachwood Sparks won't win any prizes for originality, it may someday help answer the age-old question: So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?

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Joe S. Harrington

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